Resident-led Montbello organizing committee responds to community needs with FreshLo Hub

We all have the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food. However, decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and community resources have left residents of many low-income neighborhoods across the country with no grocery stores nearby. Without these grocery stores, residents are often forced to depend on small markets and convenience stores for their basic necessities.

In Denver, Colorado, Montbello is one of the city’s largest communities, with over 36,000 residents and 8,900 families. In recent years, it has also become one of Denver’s most diverse neighborhoods – 61 percent of residents are Latinos and 24 percent are black.

Although rich in cultural assets, knowledge and expertise, Montbello faces several challenges, including limited access to healthy food, high unemployment rates, rising house prices and rents, growing risk gentrification and displacement, as well as the lack of public spaces. When changes were made, they were often implemented without community input or even in direct opposition to the stated interests of community members.

Time to organize

Recognizing the need for an engaged process of organizing residents to make their voices heard, a multiracial and multiethnic group of residents and stakeholders of Montbello began to meet in mid-2013. Calling themselves the Montbello Organizing Committee (MOC), they began to train in community organizing, discussing with community members and laying the foundations for the organization that exists today.

On turkey and tamales, MOC first engaged the community in the fall of 2014 at an event to celebrate community strengths and identify collective issues. Spurred on by the closure of the region’s only full-service grocery store, the impending development of suburban RTD lines that would divide the city, and the elimination of neighborhood bus lines, residents identified the development of retail, the transport and community improvement as their top priorities. Teams of residents began to meet regularly and got to work. Their vision? A cultural arts center anchored in the grocery store at the heart of the community.

“We had just finished the process in our community where we had done all these interviews and surveys and met with stakeholders and it all resulted in this menu of eight major challenges in our community,” said Donna Garnett, executive director of the committee. organization of Montbello. . “We were thinking about how to fix these issues and how many we could fix on behalf of the community at a time, and there you go, there was an opportunity with FreshLo. “

A community solution: FreshLo Hub

One of 23 FreshLo projects launched nationwide with funding from the Kresge Foundation and other philanthropic partners, Montbello’s FreshLo Hub started as a plan to introduce a grocery store and is now an economic development initiative of multi-million dollar designed to revitalize the neighborhood.

Incorporated in 20-Year Far Northeast Denver Neighborhood Map, the Hub will include:

Healthy food

In partnership with a local grocery store operator aligned with its mission, the FreshLo Hub grocery store will provide healthy, affordable and culturally relevant food. In addition, the store will create jobs for local residents. MOC is also partnering with an urban farm that supplies residents with fresh produce and operates a seasonal weekend farmer’s market at the FreshLo Hub site.

FreshLo Walking Loop

The FreshLo Hub is also at the heart of a pedestrian loop that connects the community to services, retail and the arts. The FreshLo Walkable Loop connects various community assets on a six mile walking trail. Along the loop, residents can enjoy locally created artwork to celebrate the diversity of the community.

Cultural arts and connectivity

In partnership with the Colorado Black Arts Movement, also known as FreshLo Arts, a performance and presentation space will become a community destination for the cultural arts. The gallery, rehearsal and recital rooms will surround the theater, and spaces will be available for non-profit and artistic groups to offer classes to the community.

Equitable economic development

In addition to the grocery store and art space, the Hub will offer at least six small retail spaces for resident-owned businesses. Stores can carry products from local artisans and entrepreneurs. The Denver Mental Health Center will occupy office space and provide mental health services to residents of Montbello.

Affordable housing

Above the market, movie theaters, retail stores and offices are 97 affordable housing units. The units will range in size from one to three bedrooms and will be rented to residents within the AMI qualifying range of 30-70%. With a variety of floor plans and sizes, the apartments will house 160 to 230 residents.

Funding of the FreshLo Hub

Completion of the Hub comes with an estimated price tag of $ 65 million from a variety of sources including tax credits, philanthropic contributions, and fundraising. MOC raises $ 20 million in philanthropic support from a combination of capital contributions and program-related investments (PRI). PRIs are low-interest subordinated loans primarily granted by foundations.

MOC’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) proposal was funded to the tune of $ 32 million in 2020. This is a rare achievement for a community-led organization and a new applicant to receive these tax credits. The project also secured investors and a New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) allowance.

“The team is community-driven and local-focused, but have also been able to collaborate effectively with so many different organizations at multiple levels to make it all possible,” said Stacey Barbas, senior program manager at Kresge’s health program.

They are therefore on track to make the Hub a reality, but continue to fundraise. MOC plans to launch the project in 2022.

Rents from residential, office and retail tenants will cover operations and loan servicing and make the project self-sustaining over time.

What was once a volunteer-run organization now has seven employees and has created 43 jobs in the community.

“We started with $ 5,000 in the bank, and now we have a budget that is over $ 2 million per year. Of that money, 79 percent goes directly back to the community. We’re proud of it and believe it changes people’s lives, ”said Garnett.

Respond to relevant community needs

Whether it’s working with community partners on children’s programs over the summer or providing leadership development to local entrepreneurs, MOC stays connected to the community and brings additional resources so partners can respond. quickly to needs as they arise.

For example, MOC has worked with more than a dozen organizations to raise over $ 1 million to provide residents with much-needed and culturally appropriate mental health services.

MOC is recognized for its model of community representation – being a diverse, resident-led organization is not an initiative, it’s the model, Barbas said.

“I am proud of our activities, of our results, of the building itself, of the amount of funds that we have been able to mobilize in our community, but the thing that I think I am most proud of is that we have set a model for our entire city of what it means to engage with the community, whatever the issue, ”said Garnett.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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